On Time and Why I Can't Decide What To Be When I Grow Up.
For the past twelve years I have been trying to decide whether I want to be a theologian or a philosopher or a writer when I grow up.
Since 2010 I have divided my reading and thinking and writing across novels, essays and poetry; philosophical texts I can't really get my head around; deeply frustrating theology that I wish I hadn't given any time to.
The three disciplines are always vying for priority boarding inside my head. In the middle of a good novel I often think there is nothing better than getting utterly lost in a book. On the odd occasion I get an 'aha' moment when reading a German idealist, say, I think I might well be cut out for this metaphysics malarkey. And when vehemently disagreeing with some theologian or other I reckon I must be in the right area given the sheer strength of feeling I experience when thinking about God or redemption or forgiveness.
It is 2022. It is odd for someone like me to be insisting on strict boundary lines between anything, including between literature, philosophy and theology. Sure, they all are doing different things with their own workings and assumptions, but to emphasise their unlikeness is to create unnecessary silos, to remove the possibility of fruitful conversation. In many cases, with the right novel, the distinctions between the three seem arbitrary,
A novelist, a philosopher and a theologian, while not necessarily walking into a bar have, nonetheless, plenty to talk about.
At some level, each of them is concerned with truth.
Novelists, in their worldbuilding, are attached to some notion of reality, of truth. And this is just as true of the postmoderns as anyone. By denying Truth you still pay an almighty heed to the concept at the very least. Realists, whether magical or otherwise, rely on some notion of truth in order for their work to have any coherence at all.
Philosophers, most obviously, seek the truth. Particularly the analytic bunch. Continental philosophers care about truth, too, once they are done with the Brylcream and the third cigarette.
Theologians, most controversially of all, are, I think, deeply concerned with truth. Unlike the others, Christian theologians (I can only really speak for my own faith background here) are, on the whole, duty bound to a particular set of principles and propositions. Theology is written for the faithful, so it often makes no sense to those who don't accept some of the basic premises being relied upon. Theologians, broadly speaking, do not have to prove the logical foundations of their worldview. Instead, the discipline works on secondary questions: 'granting for a second that a God did create this world. what might that mean?'
That theology can skip the tricky work of the philosopher excites me. I am often lazy, and leaning into the title of theologian gives me a respectable excuse to begin the much more exciting work of imagining meaning without engaging in the slow, painful and impossible of work of trying to prove I am on solid ground to begin with.
Kierkegaard made the point that the disciples dropped their nets and followed Jesus before having any logical or sufficient reason for doing so. In this way, the theology I like tends to drop its nets and jump into the secondary questions of meaning. Faith becomes true from the inside. Faith is animated by theology, then, not by philosophy.
What connects these three disciplines for me are notions of freedom, free will and narrative.
I am a fan of Paul Auster's novels. His work is a literary exploration of fate, chance, coincidence and free will and his stories lay bear the inevitable overlap between literature and one of the fundamental questions of philosophy: are we free to do otherwise? Every decent novel raises questions like these by its very existence as written narrative.
I am often struck by the God-like perspective authors have in the creation of an £8.99 world. To write a novel is, in some sense, to enter into the question of what it might be like to be omnipotent and omniscient. Writers tug on the hem of divinity, a fact which makes their own comments on where their novels come from endlessly interesting for the theologian in me.
I am always going to interested in all three areas. And I think I finally know the reason. My fundamental interest in this world is in the concept of change. How does change happen, is genuine change possible in a determined world, what change does religious belief make, what does change mean in a created universe?
I am in two minds about whether free will is a thing. I realise the possible circularity in this though. I may not have a choice in what I think about choice. Nevertheless, I think freedom persists as a concept despite the reality of determinism or its opposite.
Freedom, in other words, does not require free will, nor is it necessarily diluted by cosmic or biological determinism. We see this in well written characters in novels. Characters that are synonymous with themselves, who make decisions harmonious with their nature. There is nothing more frustrating than a novel being utterly ruined by a character behaving in a way that makes absolutely no sense. This is something that has wider implications, I think.
Often we think free will is the gold standard for personhood. But in many cases free will and randomness are hard to separate. If we replay the same event again and again nothing would ever change. If it did, what deep chaos led to a different outcome? Randomness is simply determinism by the back door.
All of this is important because regardless of whether I have free will or not. I still have the uncanny sense that I am some one. I have an unshakeable sense that my life, my decisions and thoughts have some meaning.
What I have come to suppose is that the 'I' I carry with me from moment to moment - the phenomenon that bears my name - isn't some immutable fact trudging its way through time. Instead, it is a narrative being written minute to minute, year to year. I - 'Andrew Cunning' - am a story told by me, to me, to others, by others. 'I' am a kind of grand narrative, a story that sits in the world like a huge river, fed by streams of little stories, memories, jokes and assumptions. In this way I never truly belong to myself.
If I am, at root, a narrative, then what ever 'I' am relies on change to make me possible. Change is the engine of tangible time. It is what makes narrative happen, it is what permits it.
I often used to be utterly perplexed that most of us have something of a unified sense of self. How could that ever be, given the movement of time and the literal rebuilding of our bodies from minute to minute? The Ship of Theseus. And while all my planks have been replaced years ago, I still recognise the photo of the seven year old at the amusement park as, in some sense, me.
The past is a foreign country, sure. But I used to live there. And I still have the scar on my left knee from the fall on the step.
Now I see these questions from a different angle. The issue isn't 'how do we hold on to a stable sense of self in a temporal world?', but, 'how could we ever have a sense of ourselves without change?'
From this side I am starting to understand that the idea of a stable self is probably an illusion that wouldn't survive much scrutiny.
But I am also realising that my sense of self is a grace thrown over the movement of time.
The stoics say we shouldn't worry about what we can't control. The mystics say that gratitude is the secret of contentment. I am learning to be grateful for time.
I sometimes think we are all like wee Emily Dickinson poems: constrained, restricted, unpublished little creatures, flourishing because of, not in spite of, form.